It’s Complicated

The channel Comedy Central provides these FRIENDLY FACTS about the unfailingly popular sitcom FRIENDS. One of these caught my attention. The writers used to make pie charts to track the number of lines (and jokes) that each of the central characters got to say. This was their way of ensuring that Ross, Monica, Joey, Chandler and Phoebe got equal footage. It must have been challenging ensuring that all of these characters were etched properly with their own distinctive personalities and idiosyncrasies, that they could have their own tracks and also come together in a harmonious way. But I guess their efforts did pay off! Multistarrers are never easy. And this is true of process documentation narratives as well where we have a host of key actors who must be given their due space!

So, you are capturing an intervention involving multiple organisations. Typically, the amount of information that is available or can be easily sourced from these organisations would vary. One will encounter an entire range from eager sharers to reticent responders. Besides, it is not just about obtaining adequate information but also ensuring adequate representation. After all, each of these organisations – in their own way – must have played a part. For the process documentation narrative to be anchored to contextual realities (including the diversities), it must capture all of this as far as possible.

It is complicated and I don’t know if there are any easy solutions. But yes, recognising the importance of providing each actor his/her space in the narrative is a good starting point. I will (hopefully) get better at this with practice. Meanwhile, I think that team of writers at FRIENDS was on to a good thing!

For Those on the Frontlines

As the financial year end approaches, many of us are caught up in finetuning annual reports and other publications. It is time to share our experiences and learnings with others (read donors) and also fish around for future prospects. So, we need to reflect on project experiences and tease out gripping insights. Invariably, we fall back on our frontline workers to help us.

After all, they are the ones who are in the middle of all the action. Mobilising, cajoling, trying different tricks so that the strategies and activities that have been put on paper become reassuring realities. The frontline workers may not necessarily be aware of terms like Theory of Change but they are the ones who live it.

Of course, everybody is not the same. Motivation and capacities vary. There will be programme managers who feel that some of the frontline workers ‘don’t get it’ or that some have gotten too old for the tasks. But, there are also those who value the experience and insights that frontline workers bring. Also, let’s face it. Motivation and capacities vary on both sides!

Personally, I have learnt more from frontline workers than I have in classes on social work. Lessons of unwavering commitment, winning hearts and getting the job done without making a fuss! Of patience and even withstanding personal humiliation for a bigger purpose. I don’t know if I could have done half of what I have known some of them to do. Of course, many organisations are being forced to deal with shrinking resources and other trials of survival. These do cast an insidious shadow and limit possibilities. Nonetheless, let us not forget about those who ultimately make it happen!

And, have to add this! A former fieldwork supervisor once told me – “Maybe people who work in NGOs (non government organisations) need an NGO that would look after their needs and that of their families!”

Of Triumphs and Tribulations

The five girls waited patiently as I finished another interview. Then, it was their turn. I explained the objective of the interaction – this was about capturing their experiences of returning to school for a case study document. Basically, these girls were part of groups (Kishori Samooh) constituted through the government’s SABLA scheme (Rajiv Gandhi Scheme for Empowerment of Adolescent Girls). Helping girls who had dropped out to return to formal schooling was one of the components of this scheme. The document was being prepared under a pilot project wherein Child In Need Institute (a reputed not for profit organisation) was assisting the state departments (Departments of Child Development and Women Development and Social Welfare, Government of West Bengal, India) in rolling out the scheme across 18 blocks in 6 districts of West Bengal. Ford Foundation had provided additional support.

The girls spoke about the circumstances that had conspired against them. Absent fathers, mothers trying to run the families by doing whatever they could, or both parents struggling with low paying jobs. Two of the girls worked as domestic maids themselves while the other three stayed at home, helping with household work. All of them had been out of school for an average of about three years. They had not really expected much when they had joined the girls’ groups. Then, the Anganwadi Workers (grassroots government functionary) and CINI staffs helped them in rejoining school in classes VI-VIII. The two girls who worked as maids negotiated timings with their employers so that they could attend classes. This was a significant achievement in itself.

Getting back into the classroom was half the battle. The girls felt uncomfortable as they were among the oldest in their classes. Some of their classmates didn’t make it easy for them either. Comments and taunts sometimes hung in the air, sometimes the echoes followed them even after they left school. But then there were also the few that befriended them. The relationship with the teachers remained complicated as well, sometimes affected by their own lack of confidence in approaching them with doubts or requests for help.

Two girls mentioned another challenge. There were a couple of days when they had been unable to board any of the buses that would take them to school. As the buses slowed down at the stop, the two would get ready to get on. Each time, the conductor would spot them and say that the bus was full and they should take the next one. The girls would be left standing as the buses would fill up with other passengers and leave. The two would finally trudge back home. No school that day. Why did they think this happened? “Maybe because we as students can give less fare and the conductors don’t want that” is the response. Another girl, whose financial situation was comparatively better than these two and this was reflected in her clothing and appearance, shared that this had never happened to her.

In the midst of all these challenges and an uncertain future, the urge to prove themselves now in the classrooms was unmistakable. “I may take more time. But I can also do it,” stated one with quiet confidence as others around her nodded in agreement.

She Writes Minutes and Donor Reports

Different people understand documentation differently. But there seems to be a consensus on the basic expectations from a person designated for the documentation role – writing minutes and donor reports. Of course, I have come across organisations that have a fuller understanding of the scope and purpose of the documentation role. But they are in a minority.

Before I go any further, let me say that I have nothing against writing minutes and donor reports. We must record our meetings. That is common sense. And, of course, we have to write reports for donors. It will also help ensure that we continue to have donors! But the problem is that the documentation person is forced to write minutes for every meeting that he (or more often she) attends. Sometimes, he/she is asked to come to a meeting only because we need someone to write the minutes. We seem to believe, rather conveniently, that only the documentation person can write minutes!

And when he/she is not writing minutes, he/she should definitely be writing donor reports. It doesn’t matter if you get the data at the last minute. Sometimes, it won’t even add up. The documentation person is supposed to have magical powers of making everything come together in a coherent whole. And yes, also do some creative writing and throw in some learnings and challenges for good measure!

But there is so much more that a documentation person can do. He/she should really be helping to develop a documentation plan for the project/programme and then follow that. Develop a list of possible documentation outputs (yes, donor reports can be seen as an important part of that list!). Ensure that he/she and others in the team use standardised formats to collect information for case studies, events etc. Write all kinds of stuff. Publish some.

Documentation can, and should be, interesting and fun. That is why some of us choose to do this job in the first place. Let us hope the powers that be also realise this truth as well!